A Tale of Two Bullies: Why Chris Christie Is No Lyndon Johnson

Americans may admire a politician who can play hardball, but it matters whether his victim is a political opponent or an innocent citizen.
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"That man will twist your arm off at the shoulder and beat your head in with it," Senator Richard Russell, right, said of President Johnson. (Yoichi Okamoto/National Archives)

I am a born-and-raised New Jerseyan, and while I didn't vote for Chris Christie, I remember liking him during his first term as governor. I remember him talking about why he campaigned in poor, overwhelmingly Democratic cities such as Paterson: "I know I'm not going to win there," he would explain, "but I'm going to win, and when I do I want all those folks to know that I'm their governor, too, and I cared enough about them to ask them for their vote even if their answer was ‘no.'"

With David Wildstein, the dismissed Port Authority official who administered the now-infamous Fort Lee lane closures, now claiming there is evidence the governor knew about the closures when they happened, that early-days Christie feels as sad and distant a memory as my family's house at Point Pleasant Beach—lost, as the Springsteen song goes, in the flood.    

Ezra Klein recently mulled Christie's rise in the context of modern American nostalgia for Lyndon Johnson's strong-arming style. In part because of our weak-executive system of government, Klein argued, "The public admires bullying leaders who get things done while loathing the tactics that make their achievements possible." Christie's problem, according to Klein, is that those tactics came to light: "As long as the methods were hidden and only the results public, he was applauded for it," Klein wrote. This argument is essentially an elaboration on Bob Dylan: "In Jersey anything's legal, as long as you don't get caught."

Leaving aside the false premise that Christie's hardnosed style was ever particularly hidden, Klein fails to draw a key distinction between Christie and LBJ. What he misses—and what makes Christie's behavior worse—is the difference between ruthlessness toward other political figures undertaken to benefit the people (which may be wrong, but may be excused), and ruthlessness toward the people undertaken to benefit a political figure (which is worse, and inexcusable). Bullying is never right, that is to say, but in assessing degrees of wrong in politics, voters tend to look at who gets hurt—a political colleague or an everyday citizen—and who benefits: you or your constituents.

Take, with regard to the question of who gets hurt, some of Christie's earlier acts of alleged "retribution" that Klein quotes from Kate Zernike's December New York Times article:

a former governor who was stripped of police security at public events; a Rutgers professor who lost state financing for cherished programs; a state senator whose candidate for a judgeship suddenly stalled; another senator who was disinvited from an event with the governor in his own district.

As petty and vengeful as these stories sound, each of them concerns a person who had entered the political arena. (The Rutgers professor, Alan Rosenthal, was an active public figure, served on a legislative redistricting commission, and was ranked first on a New Jersey political blog's 2011 list of "the 100 most influential [non-elected] personalities in New Jersey politics"; he was also an eminent scholar of state legislatures, respected on both sides of the aisle, who passed away last July.) These facts don't make Christie's alleged behavior praiseworthy; no citizen's ideal political leader would be petty or vengeful. But it matters that the recipients were people who sought out politics.

Politics is often called a contact sport, and in this sense it is like actual contact sports. You waive your right not to get tackled when you choose to join a football game; you don't when you choose to walk to the grocery store. It beggars belief that anyone would enter politics—especially New Jersey politics—and not expect to take some hits. Though nothing to be proud of, politics in this country has always been a field in which someone might stall your judgeship, cut off your project's funding, or exclude you from an event to score a political point. Christie takes personal hits, too—his weight has certainly been mocked in public by his political opponents more than any private citizen would ever tolerate.  

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Michael Zuckerman

Michael Zuckerman is a writer based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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